Pat is a haunted woman. “Something pursued her. Dreams – phantoms – woke her in the small hours, driving her from her bed to walk in the darkness of the strange English village.”

Sequestered in Earl Soham, drinking too much whisky and brooding over her relationship with cool, elegant but married Sam, Pat is starting to feel paranoid, restless and full of uncontainable impulses.

The Pat in question is a fictionalised version of Patricia Highsmith, the US novelist who loathed the term “crime writer”, as Jill’s impeccable portrait reveals. And her life is starting to get as murderously tricky as a storyline in one of her own books.

It’s a neat narrative device to plunge a psychological plotter into a problem largely of her own making. As well as the impossible love affair, there is a murder, menacing anonymous letters and the disturbing incursion of childhood memories (“that low, grim hum of constant quarrelling”) as she struggles to escape the hectoring recollections of her abusive stepfather and her fraught relationship with her mother. As Pat is overtaken by events, a breakdown looms.

Jill Dawson’s clear, crisp prose provides a stark contrast to the maddening inner workings of Pat’s increasingly troubled mind. “It’s not controlled, plotted, planned and deliberate: it’s all just an explosion of mess, of feeling. Feelings directing everything.”

In a rather intriguing subplot, Pat is being courted by the perky Virginia Smythson-Balby whose distant cousin is writing an unauthorised biography of her and that brings back memories of present amours, past loves and old break-ups. It’s a volatile mixture and unsurprisingly, Pat eventually succumbs to the pressure.

If The Crime Writer has a flaw, it’s the faltering nature of the ending, but overall it is a hugely compelling read, jam-packed full of tensions and psychological insight, all beautifully observed.

VERDICT 4/5
Eithne Farry

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